April 21, 2019
Promoting Your Small Business to Big Companies with No Budget
Okay, so you’ve decided to start a small business. If you’re bootstrapping your project, odds are you don’t have a lot of money to spend on marketing. Been there, done that. One thing I learned a long time ago (and I am repeating myself again and again because it is so true) was what my printing vendor once told me:
Time. Quality. Price. Pick any two.
Here are my top suggestions for promoting your business with little to no budget.
Invest in a decent logo.
Most small companies have really crappy logos. Sometimes the CEO thinks he’s clever and came up with something he likes. Maybe a cousin “is a painter” so he should be able to design a logo for a family member. Not really. Graphic designers are trained specifically for this, while painters, sculptors and cartoonists come from very different disciplines. I would not expect a graphic designer to paint beautiful portraits (though some can). There are many freelance sites online where you can post your design brief (which can be a simple statement of what your company does) and a small fee (anywhere from $50 to 1,000 on most sites). It really is worth the money to get a professional to do the work.
Develop a simple website.
Take your brochures and post that content online. WordPress, Joomla!, and Drupal are all open source or free and many of their templates are responsive, so regardless of the device a visitor to your site is using, they can still freely maneuver throughout your site. Domain names can be registered for a few dollars a year now. Many templates or theme designs are paid, anywhere from $29 to $299 for an e-commerce ready website. Once you have posted your content, develop a plan for regular updates. No one likes a stale web site. Develop an editorial calendar and blog regularly. A blog is the most powerful tool in your arsenal. Don’t ignore its potential. Blogs carry a lot of weight with Google and other search engines. If your company is providing a trial or freemium version of your product or service, add a call to action to your home page. If you have case studies or white papers that would be of interest to your potential clients, host them behind a registration wall — get their email so you can continue the conversation at a later point. All these web site platforms have plugins you can download and install to support forms, social media, and many other interactive components. Some are free; others paid. Once you go live, you can always add in additional features over the months.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
Search engine optimization is all about the content and how that content is read by search engines who crawl the web, link by link, accessing new content. Search engines will look at your content as part of an overall whole — how you identify images, what meta tags you still use, how you tag posts and social media updates — it all adds up to how you will rank for certain keywords people will use to find services or products such as yours. I’ve always been humbled by the search results. When reviewing your google analytics, there is a section that lists the highest ranking search strings people have used to visit your site. They are never what you think they would be and never what you have positioned as primary keywords for your site. Most of these are what SEO professionals call “long tail keywords”, not part of your major top ten searches you want people to find you for (use those for online advertising). Don’t fret or be overwhelmed because overall, great content and expertly curated links to external resources will trump any SEO challenges your site may have. Some of those long tail keywords have real staying power, increasing time on site and decreasing bounce rates (pay close attention to this metric — these are the people who are showing up at your site and immediately realize they are in the wrong place and “bounce” by hitting the “Back” button. Whatever you are doing to attract them, figure out how to change the content on your site to decrease this. It may not be an issue today, but if you’ve ever managed a site getting 12 million page views a day, you want all those visitors to convert. Those that don’t convert are using up bandwidth you have to pay for.)
If you don’t know your way around SEO, you can hire a professional to do this. There are also plugins available to help you with this, both free and paid. One of my personal favorites for WordPress is Yoast ( https://wordpress.org/plugins/wordpress-seo/). I highly recommend it to newbie SEO peeps because it gives you hints and tips while ranking your SEO tags.
Submit Your Web Site to Search Engines
Until you are ready to go live, I highly recommend that you keep your site in development available by IP address only. Once Google spiders your site, it may only show two or three pages in the search results because you did not have the entire site linked and menus structured properly before the crawler came through your site. You may have to wait months before Google and other search engines visit you again. Wait until your site is launched, then go online to the search engines and submit your xml site map (another plugin available in both free and paid versions). By all means, put a link to a site map in the footer of your pages — this enables any web crawler to come through and find all the pages you want them to list in search results.
Social Media (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, etc.)
Once your site is live, develop social media company pages on Google+, Facebook, LinkedIn, and any other social media sites that would be appropriate and where your potential customers live online. For example, in Myanmar, many internet users think of Facebook the same way many people in the US regarded AOL when they first joined the internet. As if it were all there was to the online experience. These “walled gardens” are useful when you are entering new markets, but beyond that, they are an excellent way for you extend your brand and interact with customers, prospects, analysts, journalists, and the community at large.
There are many ways to use social media. For example, at my present company, we use Facebook to showcase an insider’s view to the events in our company in order to recruit internally. We are heavy users of hashtags, including #iplacelife and #iplaceheroes, which have gone viral in India for certain posts. For a company of 400 people, we have a reach of over 167,000 on Facebook and have a pipeline of people applying to work for the company. We have no problem getting people interested in working for our company.
We use LinkedIn more carefully and with more curation of thought leaders in the industry. You don’t have to actually be the expert; if all else fails, be the expert curator of other people’s content. If you are thoughtful and thoroughly understand your audience, you will know exactly what will be of interest to them and they will follow you and share your posts and updates.
Visual social media, like Snapchat, Instagram and Pinterest may not be the best web sites for posting content unless you have the ability to post images and video that are compelling and shareable. Nobody wants to see the crappy video you took on your phone of an office birthday party on your web site. But people may enjoy it as part of a social media program. Keep your individual streams for different audiences separate. What you post for internal recruiting efforts will be very different from what you post to attract potential customers. Always maintain the highest standards possible when it comes to clients and potential clients — your interactions need to reflect the brand and a brand of quality will have quality graphics, videos, and thoughtfully curated links to best of the web in your industry.
A scourge for many, email is one of the most efficient and effective ways to reach out to potential customers. There are a number of low cost email service providers available on the market today depending on the number of email addresses you store and the number of emails you send each month. For newbies, select one of their standard templates that work nicely with your branding to get started.
First, where are you getting your emails addresses from? I get emails from people all the time with lists of “thousands of decision makers in your industry”, but this is actually against the law. The CAN SPAM Act and California’s Business & Professions Code § 17529.5 state emphatically that a person must add themselves to your email list, thereby signifying permission to send them emails. You can generate these emails from visitors to your web site by creating objects of value to the potential consumer, like a registration wall before downloading templates, white papers, software tools and other content from your site. For one organization, I worked closely with a sales guy with a tech background and developed two software tools, one that translated measurements, another that measured the accuracy of motion. They were free to download with just the entry of your email address. This will, however, take forever to generate a decent list.
What I have seen, and I am not saying this is legal or acceptable behavior, but many companies will use these email lists as one-time mailings, stating within the content that they will not be contacted again. Email is a numbers game — the more volume you have, the higher the returns.
Metrics to know: Open Rates are the number of people who have opened your email and read it (for some email providers this may also indicate number of people who saw the preview but did not actually open). The Open Rate (or OR) is completely dependent upon your Subject Line and From address. A typical industry OR for B2B with active subscribers from your web site could be as high as 60%. A typical industry OR for B2B using these rented lists, scraped emails (a black-hat option not recommended), etc., is as low as 2%.
Click-Through Rates (CTR) are the number of people who opened and read your emails and then clicked on a link or linked image provided within the email to complete a desired action. Typical rates, depending on the call to action can be anywhere from 2% to 15%.
So let’s do the math. If you want, say, 10 new clients a month, based on a 2% OR and 2% CTR, you will need 25,000 leads per month. That’s a lot to expect from a B2B web site that gets maybe 500 visitors in a month. Focus on building quality followers to your web site by creating emails that people find compelling. Ask them to share your content with colleagues or on social media. Create a referral program rewarding current followers for forwarding your emails. A/B test subject lines and content formatting to see what increases your open and click-through rates. This is not complicated, but it does take time.
Engaging with analysts and journalists can be frustrating. They may not be interested in your story for a variety of reasons. If I hear one more CEO tell me to call a journalist personally, I will quit. I know many journalists and NONE, I repeat, NONE, want you to call them. They don’t want your press release as a Word document attachment to an email you send them for network security reasons. They don’t want daily emails from you to discuss your company. What is the story? Why should they be interested? Come at it from their angle. Why are you interesting? How are you changing the world? What are you doing differently? You need to pitch journalists and the best way I know is engaging with them on twitter.
I haven’t tweeted in a few years. Frankly, I’m tired of the endless stream of crap on Twitter, but when I was active, I carefully curated green tech and the telecom industry. My tweets were that nexus between a dirty industry (telecom) and renewable energy and that was the sweet spot. No one else was tweeting on the same subject matter. I had several journalists following me and asking for responses to issues and events in the telecom industry that I was happy to forward on to my CEO, the only person allowed to speak for the organization. This takes a lot of work, but organizing your time, reading through other people’s lists and links each morning will help you understand what journalists in your industry respond to and how to act accordingly. The key indicator to your success is when they start retweeting your tweets. Direct Message (DM) them with thanks for retweeting and continue the conversation. If you are the only one up at 3 AM when a journalist has a 6 AM deadline, you’ll get the quote in the paper. Sometimes it’s just a matter of timing.
You may also want to research the media kits of industry newspapers, magazines and blogs to see if they have editorial calendars available. When subject matter that correlates with your products or services is scheduled, be sure to approach the journalists you know at that company to ensure a mention or quote on the topic.
There are also numerous free sites that publish your press releases. Every time you send out a press release, send it out everywhere you can to increase the number of links into your site. Search engines love inbound links. The better the quality of the sites linking to you, the better. These free press release site links are just okay compared to actual content in well regarded publications, but they’ll give you some SEO karma.
Every trade show and conference has a Call for Papers (CfP) deadline, usually around six months prior to the show. Do your research and create a calendar of these deadlines for shows in your industry. Develop a Speaker Kit for each individual in your company that is capable of presenting topics that would be of interest to people in your industry. Develop long and short bios, topics and course descriptions, and generate professional high resolution photos of your speakers. If there are videos of them presenting, keep them together in a dossier for each speaker. These kits will enable you to pitch several shows as each deadline opens.
Conference planners like case studies. They prefer a client of yours detailing their challenge, how you addressed their challenge and showcasing the results. Whenever possible, pair up with a favorite client who would be willing to talk on your behalf. Conference planners hate nothing more than sales pitches, so keep executives focused on higher level industry issues (like vision of the future of the industry), technical leads on emerging technologies, innovations, or solutions they’ve created, and lower level managers for panels and “how-to” workshops.
Speaking engagements give you so much more credibility than merely exhibiting at a show. They establish you as an expert or thought leader in your industry. You typically don’t get paid and have to pay for your speaker’s expenses, but that is typically far less than the costs for exhibiting at a show. If you can afford to do both, even better.
Pay Per Click internet advertising can generate a wealth of visitors to your web site, but doing this badly will significantly increase your bounce rate without increasing conversions to sales. Google Adwords features tools to help you create your advertising and many professionals may have up to 20 or so different ads running at the same time for the same web site, focusing on both the main keywords as well as long-tail keywords which may be far more affordable. Test everything. I have been humbled numerous times learning what keywords and ad content actually create sales, compared to those that create browsers on your web site.
Marketing to Big Companies
When marketing has no budget, you need to get creative. How do you get noticed amidst the noise online? Small companies need to be bold and think of ways that differentiate themselves from the pack. Early in my career I worked for an organization that trained software developers in object-oriented programming (OOP). We decided to create a glossary of OOP terminology. We were a tiny company — maybe 20 people, and our competitors were huge multinational and publicly traded corporations. Who were we to be publishing a glossary for the industry? We were there first. We worked closely with industry organizations (most notably the Object Management Group) to establish the terms used and their definitions. It became the de facto standard for the industry. People would come to our booths at shows to pick up the most up-to-date edition which we gave away for free. At the back of each was a return postcard which enabled our sales team to contact people interested in our training. We were a company used to selling to early adopters. We were now bridging the chasm (in the 1990’s) to mainstreaming object-oriented software development that we all now use today.
When selling to big companies, they need support for the buying decision. You are small and unproven. Your technology may not be supported by major players yet. You may need a “bottom up” sales approach, coaching lower level employees to seek adoption of your product or service. Using a “top down” AND “bottom up” sales option will significantly decrease the sales cycle. When the CEO knows about your product and a lower level employee seeks budget approval, you will cut the time literally in half. I guarantee it.
What makes you different? Innovative? Memorable? I keep coming back to the axiom of time/quality/price. If you don’t have money, you need to spend the time to develop the quality. You may need to invest in one full time person to focus on these tasks. That person may be you. Investing time in developing a quality marketing program can only be a good thing. With quality will come the perception that you are a quality company. With a perception of quality, sales will always follow.